Today we live in a polling bubble – surveys taken from the perches in New York, Washington and Los Angeles may be obscuring rather than illuminating many of the underlying views and trends of the American electorate.
How else can one explain that although many polls showed a close race last November, almost no one (myself included) predicted a lopsided victory for Donald Trump in the Electoral College. Most media analysts and modelers concluded a Hillary Clinton victory was in the bag. One Princeton professor even agreed to eat a bug if Trump won.
As President Trump enters his 100th day, several of the same organizations are using their polls to proclaim that he has had the worst start of any modern president and the worst ratings of a president at this time in his presidency. While Trump is no FDR when it comes to forming a political coalition, a fairer reading of the polls and the election results shows his performance is probably 5 or 6 points better than is being touted and that his base of support with which he won the election remains intact.
There are several reasons for this mismatch between likely reality and the interpretations we are seeing. Most polls have moved away from voters or likely voters to U.S. adults with no screen for registration or even citizenship. And the questions often focus on storylines and narratives critical of Trump. Rarely are they written from the perspective of having missed the major swings and economic discontent that upended the election.
The current crop of stories also sets Trump ratings expectations, as though America went through the typical process of coming together around the winner. Instead we had recounts, Russian conspiracies, investigations and rallies unlike any seen after any election. The country was sharply politically divided on Election Day and remains that way today. That is the backdrop of any realistic assessment of what is happening in America.
But there are some facts and trends that are being missed in the polls.
First, Trump is likely NOT at 40 percent approval with the American electorate. He is likely higher. Trump got 46.1 percent of the popular vote, several million votes less than Clinton did, but neither candidate got a majority. Six million voters opted for a libertarian candidate and most of those votes would never go to a liberal Democrat. And when all of the congressional votes were tallied, Republicans got 3 million more votes than the Democrats and won a majority of both the popular vote and of the seats in Congress.
The recent special election in Georgia came out about the same as the Trump/Hillary vote, with Republicans nosing out Democrats. As The Washington Post poll reported, a replay of the Trump/Hillary race would today come out more for Trump than Hillary.
So what is the disconnect between polls that show his job rating at 40 and the electoral results? The major network polls all now report “U.S adults” as the sampling frame, not people who voted in the last election or expect to vote in the next one. The non-voters include 11 million undocumented aliens and a lot of folks who liked neither candidate and stayed home, as well as younger people who have lower rates of participation. These polls should not be confused with the views of the American electorate.